A plan for free social care in England will be at the centre of the Liberal Democrats’ offer to voters as the party holds its annual conference.
The party’s leader Sir Ed Davey will pledge a care package worth £5bn a year at the conference in Bournemouth.
He says reforming social care is one of the biggest challenges facing the country and a major priority for his party.
The party will use the conference as a platform to launch its policy agenda.
Starting on Saturday, the conference in Bournemouth will see the Lib Dems debate and vote on their pre-manifesto policies ahead of the next general election, which is expected next year.
The fourth-largest party in the UK Parliament, the Lib Dems are looking to build on recent successes in by-elections they have won in traditional Conservative strongholds, collectively known as the “Blue Wall”.
The conference – their first such event in person since 2019 – gives them a shop window to showcase their vision for the country and sell their ideas to voters.
Prominent among those policies is the party’s plan for social care, which the Conservatives attempted to reform under the governments of Theresa May and Boris Johnson.
Last year, analysis by Age UK found that 2.6 million people aged 50 and over were living with some form of unmet need for care in England.
Many of the pressures felt by the NHS are put down to a shortage of social care staff.
£3bn savings estimate
Another key factor is that most patients can not leave hospital when they are ready because of a lack of care support in the community, meaning beds are blocked.
The Lib Dems say if they were in government, they would fund free nursing care for everyone who needs it, as well as support with mobility, hygiene and medication.
They say this would allow more people to receive the care they need in their homes.
The party estimates the proposal would cost £5bn a year before savings are factored in, but with an estimated £3bn of savings in NHS and care home costs, it says the real net cost would be £2bn.
The party said it would set out how this policy would be funded next week, when Sir Ed will address the conference.
Speaking ahead of the event – which was cancelled last year after the death of Queen Elizabeth II – Sir Ed said the Conservatives had “failed on care and the NHS for far too long”.
“People can not get the care they need at home and are far too often either left in hospitals or sent to live in care homes,” said Sir Ed, who is a carer for his disabled son, John.
“That’s why the Liberal Democrats are bringing forward a proper alternative. We are calling for free personal care so that everyone can live independently and with dignity.”
‘Off the table’
Much of the Lib Dem pre-manifesto will look familiar to the party faithful.
Pledges to reform the UK’s electoral system, grant the vote to people aged 16 and over, and forge a closer relationship with Europe are expected to be included.
But the party has moved away from the Europhile stance of its previous leader, Jo Swinson, who promised to take the UK back into the EU and stood down after a poor showing in the 2019 general election.
In an interview with the BBC, Sir Ed said rejoining the EU was currently “off the table” and most people on the doorstep just “aren’t talking about Europe”.
He said: “We want Britain to be back at the heart of Europe, but we’re also realistic that’s going to take some time.”
Sir Ed has also insisted he is not interested in a pre-election pact with Labour.
He rejected the idea the Lib Dems could form deals with Labour ahead of by-elections next month in Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth, seats won by the Tories at the last general election.
“I’m focused – and I won’t be distracted – from my top task, which is to defeat Conservative MPs,” Sir Ed said.
In the past, the party has held the balance of power, most recently in 2010, when it entered a coalition government with the Conservatives under David Cameron.
If neither Labour nor the Tories win a majority in the next general election and the Lib Dems perform well, the party could be in a position to share power again.